Our View: Reform is close at hand

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The compromise immigration reform legislation before the U.S. Senate is key to our nation, our state and our community.

The Senate started debate this week on the bill, which includes a program that allows immigrants to stay for up to two years in a "guest worker" program, increases the number of work visas issued to immigrants, creates a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 12 million immigrants here illegally, increases employer requirements for determining residency and enhances border security. A vote on the bill is expected sometime in early June. No doubt the bill will go through changes before the vote, but the overriding principles are expected to remain intact.

We support the bill's overarching principles and hope that, after three years of recurring debate but no action in Washington, meaningful reform is finally at hand.

While this is a federal issue, it has broad implications here. The booming construction and resorts services industries in Steamboat Springs increasingly are in dire need of labor. The Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association has identified the availability of labor as the most pressing issue facing the city's businesses.

Immigrants, many of whom are here illegally, increasingly are filling gaps in our labor pool. Economics dictate that trend will continue for the foreseeable future. There simply are not enough native workers willing to do the work even as wages continue to rise. Imagine the economic impact in Steamboat Springs if immigrants suddenly were removed from the workforce.

There are an estimated 250,000 illegal immigrants in Colorado. That number grows every month. There's no telling how many illegal immigrants are in Steamboat Springs and Routt County, but anecdotal evidence indicates the number is growing rapidly.

One of the fiercest arguments against immigration is immigrants are a drain on social services and by extension, law-abiding legal residents. Others argue what illegal immigrants contribute in sales, property and income taxes offsets the costs to communities for health care, education and other social benefits. The truth is it's almost impossible to quantify such costs without better data.

One way to get that data is through a guest worker program. A guest worker program will encourage immigrants to come out of the shadows, to acquire health insurance and to utilize preventative care. A guest worker program will let us quantify how many immigrants are here and what the economic benefits and social costs are. A guest worker program will allow employers to hire available workers without worrying they are breaking the law. A guest worker program will allow immigrant workers to assimilate into the community and contribute culturally and economically without worrying they are putting their livelihoods at risk.

We think it appropriate that those who are here, working and without criminal records, be given a chance at citizenship after a long probationary period and after paying fees and fines. We support strengthening border security, a critical component of immigration reform in a post-Sept. 11 world. And we support greater accountability for employers in ensuring their workers are legal.

Steamboat Springs' immigrant community is going to grow regardless of what the federal government does regarding immigration reform. But reform certainly would help by allowing immigrants to come out of the shadows and contribute to our community culturally, socially and economically.

The Congress, the Senate and the administration are closer than they ever have been to meaningful immigration reform. It is time to get the job done.

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